In an era when seemingly every mainstream horror film that comes out carries a tonally heavy supernatural bent, "Happy Death Day" returns a blessed sense of macabre throwback playfulness to the genre. If 1993's romantic comedy "Groundhog Day" had featured a psychopathic killer murdering Bill Murray at the end of each repeating day, it might have looked a whole lot like this. It's to the credit of director Christopher Landon (2014's "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
") and screenwriter Scott Lobdell that they are well aware of this inevitable comparison, and then let loose to have their own darkly comic way with the conceit. Even when logic doesn't always hold up to close scrutiny, it is never less than a genuinely beguiling entertainmentnot necessarily scary but certainly atmospheric, tense, funny, and emotionally honest. It's been a long time since multiplex screens have seen a slasher-mystery with the '90s flair of "Scream
," "I Know What You Did Last Summer
," and "Urban Legend
," and this one's got it.
Bayfield University sorority sister Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) isn't a particularly warm or selfless person, and her already-prickly attitude becomes just a little more prickly when she wakes up on her birthday, after a night of heavy drinking, in the dorm room of virtual stranger Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). Attempting to go about the rest of her day is easier said than done, especially when her evening culminates in her own death at the knife-wielding hand of a killer wearing the school's smiley-faced mascot mask. Suddenly, Tree wakes back up in Carter's bed, and her birthday has reset itself. Feelings of serious déjà vu become something more as the same day begins to replay, once again ending with a deadly attack. And then, again, Tree wakes up in the same, slightly less strange dorm room. Hoping to circumvent her fate and live to finally see the next day, she sets about trying to figure out who her killer is. Almost as bad as constantly dying is the reality check with which she is faced: experiencing the same day over and over places a magnifying glass on the person she has become, and she doesn't like what she sees.
"Happy Death Day" is familiar in design, but fresh and mostly unpredictable in the way it tackles its everyone's-a-suspect whodunit plot. This is a film with an infectious personality and an acerbic, frequently quote-worthy script that takes the time to effectively observe and listen to its characters. As a protagonist, Tree follows a classic arc; at the onset, she is unlikable and self-centered, unappreciative of others and unconcerned with the fallout from her brusque actions. Looking death squarely in the eyeand then doing so again, and again, and againhas a way of putting things into perspective. Tree is disbelieving, then frantic, then dismayed, then determined by her extreme circumstances, and as she garners newfound inner strength she also attains a vivid understanding of the mistakes she's made and the grief she has held onto from her past. As frequently amusing, sometimes laugh-out-loud humorous as certain moments are, there is also an undeniable pathos at its core, and director Christopher Landon is hugely successful at carrying out this balancing act.
It is Tree's journey the viewer unflappably follows, and Jessica Rothe (2016's "La La Land
"), who is the focal point of every scene, gives the kind of breakthrough performance that could spell a long, prosperous career ahead. In many ways, this is a dream role in that it requires so many layers to shine through; as unpleasant as Tree is in the early scenes, the gradual transformation she takes to becoming her better, more authentic self rings true. Rothe is vibrant, engaging, and comedically as well as dramatically gifted, never stepping wrong, always entirely committed to embodying her heroine and the physical and internal places she goes. By the end, one is actively rooting for Treeeven if, horror of horrors, she doesn't know who Bill Murray is. Lending fine support is a bright supporting cast. Israel Broussard (2013's "The Bling Ring
") shares genuine chemistry with Rothe as fellow student Carter Davis, whom Tree confides in, then begins to like and trust. Ruby Modine (TV's "Shameless") and newcomer Rachel Matthews are effortless in their respective roles as Tree's sorority sisters, patient if undervalued roommate Lori and deliciously elitist president Danielle. Even smaller parts, like Caleb Spillyards' Tim, who has continued to pursue Tree after one bad first date, leave an impression.
"Before I Fall" with a slayer in everyone's midst, "Happy Death Day" is an involving, vivaciously written morality chiller. Well-crafted throughouta chase set-piece in a parking garage is a suspenseful highlightthe picture keeps moving forward in dynamic ways while never growing stale with repetitiveness. If Tree's personal trajectory is obvious, that doesn't make it any less resonant. As for the mystery at its center, Landon and Lobdell toy with expectations and masterfully misdirect, leading to an outcome that isn't as easily predicted as anticipated. The narrative may not be consistently airtight when considering how things would work in the real world, but by the point where these instances arise one is having such a great time it's not even worth the nitpicking. Horror movies can be many thingsterrifying, disturbing, unsettling, elegantly suggestive, and metaphorically deep. "Happy Death Day" is fun, plain and simple, injecting welcome devilish mirth into a genreand a bleakly discordant 2017 landscapewhen we need a little cathartic levity more than ever.